Sikh Farmers in California

In Yuba-Sutter County, Sikh farmers account for:

95% of the peach farming
60% prune farming
20% almonds and Walnuts

In the Bakersfield & Freson area 20% of the table grapes are grown by Sikh farmers.

                                                          A Sikh Family

Pioneer Asian Indian Migration to North America

The Punjab province, which is part of present-day India and Pakistan, was a great source of Asian Indian immigration to the United States and Canada. The first immigrants arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. At the time, the predominant method of traveling overseas was by boat. The early settlers were predominantly Sikh with fewer numbers being Hindu, Muslim, and other faiths. Furthermore, immigrants made their way into the United States from Canada as discrimination, resistance, and intolerance grew. It is estimated that 7,348 Asian Indians migrated to the United States and Canada between 1899 and 1920.

Many immigrants had farming backgrounds or were part of the British Indian Army, and they arrived in the U.S. looking for railroad, lumber, or agricultural jobs. In Northern California, two thousand Punjabis primarily worked on Western Pacific Railways to construct a 700-mile road between Oakland and Salt Lake City, which is probably modern interstate 80. Some of the Punjabis took jobs in Lumber Mills and logging camps in Oregon, Washington and California. Those that became migrant laborers in the Sacramento Valley were known as "Hindu crews." They encountered resistance, both in Canada and the United States. In addition to being viewed as eccentric dressers they were also confronted by legal oppositions.

Early Immigrants Arriving at Angel Island 

As immigration restrictions tightened in Canada, more immigrants came directly to California, passing through the Angel Island station on their way to San Francisco. Angel Island is the lesser-known sibling of the more famous Ellis Island of the Atlantic seaboard. Where Ellis Island processed immigrants crossing the Atlantic, the Angel Island Immigration Station, located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, was often the first stop for any immigrant crossing the Pacific. Between 1910 and 1940, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, from places such as China, India, Japan, and Korea were stationed, quarantined, questioned, and processed at this historical site.

Early Immigrants in Rail and Lumber Industries

The first wave of immigrants came to North America to do laboring jobs on railway construction, in the lumber mills, and in forestry. Even though they were unskilled and uneducated, they were favored by employers because they were hardworking and reliable, and because the employers could pay the Sikhs less than White men for the same work.

Between 1903-1908, Punjabis primarily worked on Western Pacific Railways in Northern California. Two thousand Punjabis worked on a 700-mile road between Oakland and Salt Lake City, which is probably modern interstate 80.

The largest mill community was located at Fraser Mills in New Westminster, close to Maillardville; it was called "Millside." According to Mawa Mangat, who came to Canada in 1925, " There were only two families there then, the rest were all single men." The company even built a temple for its workers in about 1908. Sardara Gill, who came to join his father to live and work here in 1925, says that when he arrived, there were between 200 to 300 Sikhs. They had four or five cookhouses and different sized bunkhouses, some had thirty, forty or fifty people living in them. It was a very good company, but there was a five-cent difference between Sikh's and white people. The same was true for the railroad manufacturing jobs.

Other avenues of employment started to open up in the mid-1930s. This greatly expanded their financial opportunities and gave them more economic freedom and autonomy.

Overcoming Resistance and Discrimination

Once they settled in the Sacramento Valley, the early immigrants were pleased with the amount of agricultural work available and with the mild climate. Unfortunately, it was not long before native Californians expressed their agitated feelings towards the further immigration of these "Hindus". The California Board of Control submitted a report to Governor Stephens in 1920 titled California and the Orientals: Japanese, Chinese and Hindus. It indicated that since 1910, the number of Asian Indians in the United States had increased by 33.5%. The California Board of Control perceived these immigrants as an economic threat, or competition for native farmers. They were referred to as "a group of laborers becoming landowners and threatening the monopoly of the majority group."

The California Alien Land Law of 1913, revised in 1920, prevented immigrants from owning and leasing their own land, making it a difficult struggle for those who made their living as farmers. A second indication of the discrimination which existed toward Asian Indians appeared in the Stephens report.

Canada also curtailed immigration in 1909. The immigration Act of 1917 dictated that Indian Laborers were no longer able to enter the United States; this native country existed in the "barred zone" identified in the Act.

The Origin of the "Mexican-Hindus"

A small "Mexican-Hindu" community formed in California when early male Punjabi immigrants married Hispanic women. Many of the men were unable to retrieve their family members from India, and thus were forced to seek new relationships in the United States. Barred from owning land due to anti-Asian laws, many married Mexican women and forged a fusion culture that flourished in California's Yuba City and Imperial Valley.

Producing children with names like "Maria Singh" or "Jose Rai," these "Mexidu" families have largely been forgotten as a new generation of immigrants has laid down roots. Both cultures shared a rural life and a lower-class status. Sets of Hispanic sisters or female relatives married Punjabi business partners, forming joint households. Male friendship and female kinship became the structure for family life.

The two cultures experienced different rights under the law. Punjabi men were unable to legally own land. The Mexican women, however, could own land, as they were unrestricted by discriminatory laws targeted at Asian immigrants. But if a Mexican woman married a Punjabi man, she would then become ineligible for land rights due to the specifications of the Cable Act. To get around this dilemma, the men turned to Anglo landowners, lawyers and judges to hold land for them, and to honor verbal leases. Later, they also put land in their children's names, who were American citizens.

Religion and The Role of the Gurdwara in Immigration

Between 1901-1915, the place of Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) became the center of the immigrants' movement primarily because 95 percent of the immigrant were Sikhs. After a few years of service in Malaysia and China, they managed to save some money and were able to repay the loans owned to the moneylenders. With their main problem alleviated, they started to think about practicing the Sikh tradition again. They got involved in constructing places of worship such as the Gurdwaras. They would meet in the Gurdwaras during the weekends to think about their common welfare. The Gurdwaras became places to welcome new arrivals and to help these new immigrants to look for jobs or until they can look after themselves.

The Sikhs built huge and elegant Gurdwaras in many locations including Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong (1901), and Shanghai. However, the influence did not stop here. It also spread to Canada and the United States; the Gurdwaras built in Vancouver, Canada (1908) and Stockton, California (1915) were such examples.

These Gurdwaras provided shelter, food, and social life to all immigrants without any consideration of caste, creed, or religion. Hindus and Muslims were also attending and living in these Gurdwaras.

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to be elected to the US Congress and to date remains the only Indian American. He was elected in 1956 from 29th Congressional district comprised of Riverside and Imperial Counties of California and reelected twice. While contesting in 1964 for his fourth term in the U.S. Congress, he suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. He did not win his fourth term. However, he did set a precedent for many Asians to follow in the U.S. Congress. He remains a beacon of hope and an example for many Indian Americans to succeed him.

Saund was born on September 20, 1899 in village Chhajalwadi, Amritsar, Punjab. He went to a boarding school in Amritsar and Prince of Wales College in Jammu. He graduated with B.A. degree in Mathematics from Punjab University in 1919. In the US, he enrolled in UC Berkeley in 1920 to study food preservation, in the department of Agriculture. Later, he switched to Mathematics and received MA in 1922 and Ph.D. in 1924.

As a student in India, Saund was impressed with Gandhi. He became his ardent and active follower. At the same time, he became profound admirer of the then American president, Woodrow Wilson whose speeches he read over and over again. His inspiring ideas and ideals to "make the world safe for democracy" and provide "self-determination for all people" appealed to him enormously. It was through Wilson that he became familiar with President Abraham Lincoln. He read Lincoln's life story and studied his writings that made an everlasting impression on his young mind. In the preface to his autobiography, Congressman from Indian, he wrote, "My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi". Since Lincoln had influenced him so much, he came to the U.S. for further studies in spite of opposition from his family.

Dalip S. Saund was elected Judge solely due to his exemplary grassroots campaign

Pioneer Asian Indians Contribute to Farming

Once the early immigrants left the lumber and railroad industry, they returned to farming jobs, well known by these pioneers. By 1910, the agricultural business expanded swiftly, and Punjabis started getting higher wages because of their traditional agricultural expertise. Punjabis originated from Indus valley. History experts consider Indus valley civilization as a first civilization to invent agriculture.

Punjabi settlements began in farming lands in the Sacramento valley, San Joaquin Valley and in the Imperial Valley in California. Most Sikhs worked for the next few years and established permanent homes. Some worked in the Vacaville Orchards. Five Hundred were living in Newcastle, picking and hoeing orchards. In 1909, four hundred worked in the best fields in Hamilton, Oxnard and Visalia. Most eventually settled in these places. In Fresno, ranchers considered the Punjabis reliable in financial dealings. By 1919, about 60% of the Imperial Valley was owned by non-residents. Nearly tenant farmers ran 88% of all ranches by 1924. They were able to provide regular profit from land without supervision. Punjabis were not content to remain laborers, and they started pooling money to lease land. Then they started seeking loans. By this time, they had acquired some capital and their reputation as hard workers was already established. They were viewed as reliable borrowers. Many Punjabis decided to stay in the Imperial Valley. The current mayor of El Centro is a third generation Punjabi-Mexican, David Singh Dhillon.

Sikh's U.S. Success is Felt Near and Far

Forty years ago, Didar Singh Bains came to American with $8 in his pocket with the belief that money grows on trees. He was right.

Bains was a young "jat" - A Sikh farmer from the Indian state of Punjab, where farming is next to godliness. He took one whiff of the prime Columbian loam lining the fields of Sutter County and figured he'd found paradise.

Driving tractors and irrigating orchards for 75 cents an hour, he did the work of four men, and soon bought his first peach orchard. He bought another, then another, and by 1978, had become the largest peach grower in California.

Today Bains - whose first name roughly means "visionary" in Punjabi - owns more than 40 parcels of land in 13 counties, including 667 acres next to Sacramento International Airport and much of rapidly developing western Yuba City.

The turban-clad Bains, who hasn't cut his silver beard since 1982, is now one of the wealthiest men in Northern California, worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million.

"I worked from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m." said Baines

Bains, like most other Sikh immigrants, learned the secrets of farming in the fertile fields of Punjab, which means "five rivers."

He followed his father and grandfather into the orchards of Sutter County, and after three years without a day off, had saved enough to buy a 25-acre farm.

by 1980, Bains owned 12,000 acres in California and Canada.

Source: The Sacramento Bee January 3, 1999 Author: Stephen Magagnini Bee Staff Writer

Reading List

Barrier, Gerald
The Sikh Diaspora: migration and the experience beyond Punjab
Columbia, MO.: South Asia Publications, 1989

La Brack, Bruce
The Sikhs of Northern California
New York: AMS Press 1988

Leonard, Karen
"California's Punjabi Mexican Americans"
Published in The World & I. vol. 4(5), May 1989, pp.612-623

Leonard, Karen Isaksen
Making ethnic choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992

Leonard, Karen Isaksen
The South Asian Americans
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997

Singh, Jane: Emily Hodges; Bruce, La Brack; Kenneth R. Logan
South Asians in North America: An Annotated and Selected Bibliography
Occasional Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley. Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies) No.14 Berkeley: Center for South and Southwest Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1988

Takaki, Ronald T.
From different shores: perspectives on race and ethnicity in America
New York: Oxford University Press, 1987

Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast

Echoes of Freedom

Contact T.S. Sibia
[email protected]

Share with Friends